If you’re having trouble completing your daily to-do list, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a time management problem.
You could have an attention management problem instead.
Time is a finite resource. Trying to manage it more efficiently might only aggravate the problem, psychologists say. A better option is to notice what you’re noticing. In other words, pay closer attention to what you think, say and do.
“Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus, so that you can unleash your genius,” writes productivity expert Maura Thomas in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. It is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and to instead keep it focused on the activities you choose. Rather than allowing distractions to derail you, you choose where you direct your attention at any given moment, based on an understanding of your priorities and goals.”
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“Better attention management leads to improved productivity, but it’s about much more than checking things off a to-do list,” according to Thomas in the HBR piece. “The ultimate result is the ability to create a life of choice, around things that are important to you.”
Here are four things Thomas says you should try to get under control [her quotes are from the HBR article]:
- Control your technology. “Remember, it’s there to serve you, not the other way around! Decide to take control by turning off email and ‘push’ notifications which are specifically designed to steal your attention. This will allow you to engage in more stretches of focused work on tasks and activities that you choose. As often as possible and especially when you’re working, keep your phone silent and out of sight.”
- Control your environment. “Set boundaries with others, especially in an open-office setting. For example, use headphones or put up a ‘do not disturb’ sign when you need to focus. If that doesn’t work, try going to a different part of your office, or even another floor of your building. If things are really bad, you can try teaming up with colleagues to designate a certain time of day, or day of the week, a no distractions day for everyone to do heads-down work.”
- Control your behavior. “Use those times when your technology is tamed and your do-not-disturb sign is up to get used to single-tasking: open only one window on your computer screen, and give your full attention to one task until it’s complete, or until a designated stopping point. Take breaks throughout the day where you step away from your computer. Try to unplug completely (no technology) for at least an hour or more, as often as you can. Try it for 15-20 minutes at first; then build up to an hour, or even 90 minutes.”
- Control your thoughts. “For many of us, this is the hardest nut to crack, which is why I’ve left it to last. Minds are made to wander. Practice noticing when your mind is veering off in its own direction, and gently guide your focus back to where you want it. If you think of some important small task while you are doing focused work, jot it down on a notepad and come back to it later. Do the same with information you want to look up online.”
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